Jan 19, 2014

Society for the Abolition of Footnotes in Novels: Gentlemen's Auxiliary

Amanda formed the Society for the Abolition of Footnotes in Novels. Tim gave a reasonable reply to Amanda's blog post, but I want to run in another direction with this abolitionist idea. I ask: are linear novels the way we should tell stories or do we have other options?

In addition to his penchant for using footnotes in his science fiction stories, Vance often graced the start of chapters with quoted text from fictional writings. Furthermore, he was not afraid to include an appendix or two at the end of a novel.

My favorite example of Vancian divergence from narrative tradition is at the start of Chapter 6 in Star King, where we are provided with an excerpt from Preface to Men of the Oikumene, by Jan Holberk Vaenz LXII. I love the idea of authors sneaking themselves, or even distant imaginary descendants, into their own stories.

Gentlemen's Auxiliary
In his novel Araminta Station, Vance mentioned the Medusa Cult. According to Jerdys Diffin, there had at one time been a Gentlemen's Auxiliary for the cult, but they were all used as sacrifices.

At the risk of meeting a similar fate, I've formed a gentlemen's auxiliary for the Society for the Abolition of Footnotes in Novels.

"when a novelist uses footnotes in a novel, they should know better"

I agree! We are now in the era of hypertext. Rather than use footnotes, novelists should make hypertext links. For example, in Exode, there are many hypertext links including those that take readers from the main text to the glossary.

"if this information is important to the story, make it part of the story. If it’s not, leave it out"

Efraim must search for his lost identity.
Some of my favorite science fiction stories, including many that are told in the novels of Asimov and Vance, are mysteries. Vance's novel Marune centers on the mystery of Efraim's lost memories.

Beloved features of mysteries are the "red herring" and stray story threads that the reader must sort through while trying to guess the identity of the cad. It is expected that authors will add some "irrelevant" information to their mystery stories.

I suppose in this age of the microblog, some readers don't have time to savor the "less important" elements of a novel.

I've previously given my opinion about the style of fiction that I prefer. I want to luxuriate in a Fictional Universe...the more complex the better. Vance knew the power of "random" bits of information to give readers a "feel" for an alien world.

One of the great pleasures of reading a Vance novel is being dropped into the strange culture of a distant world. I'll grant Vance any tool he wants to use, footnotes included, for the purpose of immersing me in an alien culture. I say, slow down: read and enjoy the footnotes, even if they are not central to the plot.

"Why should we all have to strain our eyesight to read footnotes, and strain our brains to decide if they’re worth reading or not?"

Fine print is so last millennium. Some day we will have ebooks that allow us to effortlessly navigate complex multilevel texts. Flat and linear print will go the way of cuneiform.

Brain Strain
Many people read science fiction for recreation and relaxation. However, readers should not be surprised to find that some "brain strain" is part of the science fiction experience. Vance was a master at tossing readers into the rich milieu of a strange new world. It is fun when we have to think about a new culture, even if we are called upon to exert ourselves cognitively.

Just a guy thing?
A typical Jack Vance science fiction novel centers on a young man like Efraim who must struggle against adversity. Efraim's mother died when he was young and in the story line of Marune his father is recently murdered. Efraim himself narrowly avoids being murdered.

Maybe such stories are inherently of more interest to a male reader. I can understand why a female reader might struggle to successfully achieve significant intellectual engagement with the typical Vance novel which features "one dude's struggle against the world". Imagine an alternate universe where there was a Joan Vance who wrote a novel called Maruna in which Maerio is the main character. One day she finds herself on the planet Bratazil, without memories of her past and she is six months pregnant.

I've never made sense of what Vance imagined could be achieved by Fwai-chi "drugs". What if Maerio was given a "drug" that removed her memories while at the same time inserting into her unborn child the kind of "memories" that Vance wrote about Efraim "recovering" at the end of Marune?

Maerio and son
It is fun to imagine the adventures that the Maerio in Maruna could have trying to recover her past life and return home with the help of her newborn son and his unusual "memories", including some from Maerio...

...Maerio makes her way to Numenes and with the help of the staff at the Connatic's hospital she discovers that she can communicate with her newborn son....

Maybe in an alternate universe Vance could have written a novel with footnotes that would have intrigued Amanda and swayed her to the dark side, to an appreciation of the value of footnotes in novels.
Maerio's home: Belrod Strang by Joël

The Structure of Reality
One of the tasks that was taken on by Vance was consideration of how a person's understanding of reality can be shaped by one's physical body and by one's culture. In Marune, Vance introduces us to the natives of the planet where Efraim was born: the Fwai-chi. Humans are recent arrivals on Marune and Vance suggests that the native Fwai-chi could perceive reality in a fundamentally different way than we humans. Efraim is given a Fwai-chi "drug" that allows him to have an unusual experience, consciously accessing "memories" of his father and his earlier ancestors.

Do linear novels reflect the structure of reality or is the linear narrative format an artifact arising from human cognitive limitations? Humans are equipped with specialized brain regions such as the hippocampus that provide us with a linear autobiographical memory. Still, research studies have shown that this linear "recording device" in our brains is not perfect and most humans often struggle to recall specific autobiographical memories upon request (see). Efforts are underway to explain how human brains efficiently provide us with semantic memory. By definition, "semantic memory" is conceptual knowledge that we can use independent of any specific spatiotemporal autobiographical context.

photo by Hayford Peirce
Some people might have brain structures that make them particularly obsessive about linear memory and linear narratives. Other people, like Jack Vance, might have brain patterns that allow them to easily meander away from strictly linear narratives. What if "the production of language and the storage of logical, linear and automatic knowledge" interferes with creativity? It might be that authors with the kind of creative imaginations that are prized by science fiction readers are able to easily over-ride the temptation to obsessively remain in a linear narrative mode. Jack Vance had an interest in music and I wonder if his literary creativity was part of a general brain pattern that promotes creativity including musical creativity.

In Exode, Thomas becomes a writer at a very early age. Thomas, shown to the right with Parthney, has an unusual brain. His mother is an Asterothrope and his father is an Ek'col. In addition to his unusual genetic endowment, during early development his brain structure was shaped by an advanced sedronic artificial life form that resided inside him as a symbiont.

Imagine that the Fwai-shi are an ancient race. In Marune they wander through the hills from station to station on their Path of Life. In the Age of Man, the Fwai-Chi have no obvious technology. However, what if the Fwai-chi who remain on the planet Marune are the remnant of what was once a technologically advanced civilization...maybe their technology is so advanced that it is invisible to we primitive humans.

Maybe inside the Fwai-chi are sedronic symbionts that give them access to the sedronic domain, and maybe that is the basis of what Vance described as their special access to the "paracosmos". Maybe the "Fwai-chi drug" that restores Efraim's memory is really advanced sedronic technology. Maybe that technology provides Maerio's son with access to what is essentially a sedronic copy of his father's memories. In my imagined novel Maruna, maybe that Fwai-chi technology could provide Maerio's newborn son with the means to communicate with Maerio.

Maybe some people are forced by the limitations of their brains to feel that linear novels are the way we should tell stories. Maybe Vance, like Thomas, was endowed with an alternative brain structure -or a sedronic symbiont- that allowed him access to a "paracosmos" a domain where the inherently nonlinear nature of reality is easier to perceive.

I've never read any of Vance's "Nopalgarth" stories, but I'm intrigued by the descriptions of them that I have seen.

In the Exode Trilogy, the alien Huaoshy are a billion years ahead of we primitive humans. It is through the transgalactic species domestication program of their agents, the pek, that our particular primate variant came into existence.

Another creation of the pek are the Kac'hin. The Kac'hin are kind of human-asterothrope hybrid, created by the pek about as casually as we might craft a pair of wire cutters. In book one of the Exode Trilogy, the Kac'hin are often mistaken as being the Creators. However, by the third book, another Kac'hin, Kach, sets out on her quest to make contact with the Creators. It is her relentless search for the truth about "paracosmos" that finally provides we Earthlings with our first glimpse of the secret history of our universe.

The Editor
Kach gets a bit out of control and by a strange twist of fate "the Editor" of the Exode Trilogy becomes the means by which some of the hidden history of Earth can be revealed. Of course, "the Editor" has no proof that his stories are part of reality rather than just science fiction.

With a jumble of memories from several other people tumbling around in his mind, "the Editor" struggles to produce a coherent linear narrative. Such are the Editor's excuses for his joining the Gentlemen's Auxiliary of the Society for the Abolition of Footnotes in Novels.

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